The man who couldn't be buried, and other stories of Brazil's Jews

A new book tells the story of Jews in Brazil from the Inquisition to World War II.

brazil synagogue 88 (photo credit: Jerusalem Post)
brazil synagogue 88
(photo credit: Jerusalem Post)
The man who couldn't be buried: It may sound like the title of a Hollywood horror film, but this tale is true. In the 1840s, Benjamin Benatar founded the first bar in Vassouras, a little town about 75 miles outside of Rio de Janeiro that today has a population of 33,206. Born in Gibraltar, Benatar introduced billiards to the town and organized dances. Never much for calling attention to his religious heritage amid all the revelry, Benatar must have felt a twinge of faith on his death bed in 1859: He would be buried a Jew, he demanded. Benatar's final request threw Vassouras into a tizzy. There was only one cemetery, and it was reserved for Roman Catholics. Finally, perhaps in the interest of public health, officials at the town's only hospital, the Catholic Santa Casa, allowed Benatar to be buried on its grounds. Revealing anecdotes like that one pepper "Jews in Brazil: Inquisition, Immigration and Identity," a book recently released in Portuguese by Brazilian publisher Civilizacao Brasileira. With contributions from more than a dozen leading scholars, the volume represents one of the first efforts to provide a comprehensive overview of Jewish history in South America's largest country. "Jews in Brazil" is divided into two sections. One covers the colonial period, with an emphasis on the Portuguese Inquisition and its effect on the lives of Jews and anusim, or forced converts. The other focuses on contemporary Brazil, examining waves of immigration in the 19th and mid-20th centuries - notably from Europe, Morocco and Egypt - and the recent history of Jews in the country. Editor Keila Grinberg is a history professor at the University of Rio de Janeiro and the Institute of Humanities of Candido Mendes University. The book grew out of her experience teaching an adult-education class on Jewish history in Brazil in 2000 as part of the country's commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the Portuguese landing on the coast of South America. "I tried to find a book like this to use in the course, but there wasn't one," she recalled. Brazilian academia lacks a tradition of ethnic studies akin to that in the United States and some other parts of the world. Few universities offer specialized programs in Jewish Studies, though in 2002 the University of Sao Paulo, or USP, inaugurated a Center for the Study of Intolerance, which includes anti-Semitism as part of a broader research agenda. Grinberg called upon leading scholars of Jewish-Brazilian history to contribute. USP's Bruno Feitler analyzed the 1630-1654 Dutch occupation of northeastern Brazil. That was a relatively advantageous time and place for Jews and anusim, and it brought the founding of the first synagogue of the Americas, Kahal Zur Israel, in the city of Recife. Many Jews of Portuguese heritage left their exile in Amsterdam and relocated to Brazil during this period, Jaqueline Hermann of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro noted in another chapter. She cited evidence suggesting that Jews comprised nearly half the population of Recife at the time. USP's Anita Novinsky wrote about the role of anusim in the 18th-century gold rush in Minas Gerais and about the persecution many of them faced from the Portuguese Inquisition. She relates how the anusim used their national and international connections to circumvent efforts by the Portuguese crown to restrict access to the mining regions. Grinberg tells of Jewish-Moroccan immigrants in the 19th century who located, like some of her own ancestors, in the Amazon, many to take advantage of the rubber boom. The Amazon also provides the setting for a strange example of Brazilian religious syncretism, the case of the Santo Rabbi. A rabbi from Jerusalem died of malaria while visiting the Amazonian city of Manaus in 1910, and was buried separately in the Catholic cemetery. Locals began to attribute miracles to the rabbi's spirit, and his tomb became a destination of pilgrimage by devout Catholics. The book also tackles a simmering academic debate over the importance of anti-Semitism in the government of Getulio Vargas, a Brazilian strongman akin to his better-known Argentinean contemporary Juan Peron. Vargas ruled Brazil before and during World War II with a fascist-inspired set of policies called the Estado Novo, or New State. The regime flirted with the Axis before finally joining the Allies near the end of the war. Before the war began, Brazil's Foreign Ministry issued a secret order to its embassies directing them to deny visas to individuals of "Semitic origins." Yet during this same period, legal migration of European Jews to Brazil skyrocketed. In the year following the secret decree, more Jews entered the country legally than in any year in the previous two decades. New immigrants flooded Rio de Janeiro's Copacabana, for instance, earning that neighborhood the derisive nickname of "Copacabanavitch." Some scholars argue that the anti-Semitism of the Vargas regime was soft-core and contradictory. Others continue to highlight its discriminatory aspects. "Jews in Brazil" allows proponents of both views to state their cases. "I tried to provide space to everyone," Grinberg said. There are as yet no plans to translate the book, but not for lack of interest by the editor. "I would very much like to do something in English - either to have this book translated or to write a new manuscript for a foreign audience," Grinberg said.